After the end of feudal system in the early 70s and establishment of the Northern Areas Council, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan for first time ever got the right to elect their political leaders. This finally gave them an opportunity to exercise their role in development through active participation.
NGOs stepped in to offer support to people in terms of poverty alleviation, education and awareness. In early 80s, after collecting donations from various international financial institutions and the government, a new socio-political system of NGOs, the government and village organisations emerged for planning and development of the region.
The first challenge was to motivate and organise villagers. This could only be achieved through grass root institutions ensuring their participation in a democratic, transparent and accountable way to identify their problems and to provide solutions with collaboration of the government and NGOs.
A half of the total cost of the development project was collected from the villagers. The idea was to ensure participation and to inculcate a sense of ownership for the project which they would have to maintain once it was in place.
Traditionally functioning irrigation canals were widened as dangerously steep rocks were replaced with relatively sustainable concrete and cement channels. As water reached villages, traditional crops and fruit plants with low yield were replaced with crops of relatively high productivity and resilient seeds which included cherries from French Alps, apples from southern heights of Beirut, potatoes from South American Andes and Canadian wheat.
Among domestic animals Kashmiri sheep, Shimshali sheep and Chilasi goats, known for their high productivity of milk and meat were introduced and dispersed into the whole region for breeding. An interesting initiative was the breeding of the domestic cow with yak from Hisper, Shimshal and upper valleys of Baltistan to get a hybrid offspring with grazing characteristics of the yak at rocky heights in cold temperatures, yet being easily tameable like a farm cow. A long hybridising process followed in five stages to get the best of both species.
In the first stage a male yak is crossed with a domestic cow, the offspring is called zo (male) zomo (female). To get the second generation, zomo gets crossed with a male yak and gives birth to a tol (male) or tolmo (female). In the third stage, the tolmo is crossed again with a male yak to obtain the gar (male) or garmo (female). Finally, the garmo and male are cross bred and the calf born to garmo is called a hulk (male) or hulkmo (female); considered the best hybrid of the yak and cow for milk and meat.
The milk of hulkmo is fatty and yellowish while the meat is in between that of a yak and a cow. The hulkmo can graze in high terrain and lives in cold environs. Being comparatively less wild than previous generations, it is suitable for farming.
The yak being an endemic specie of Hisper and Shimshal pastoral highlands in the Hunza-Nagar district and rocky terrains of Baltistan region, farmers of the region took their time to replace cows with hulkmos while a few initially tried it on an experimental basis.
But now one can see yellow milk coming from hulkmos in villages of Shinaki and Minapin where people call it the bepeye zaat (yak race in Brushasky and Shina).
Value addition fruit packaging programmess were also introduced. Apricots were previously scattered on big rocks and rooftops to dry where the wind and rain would darken their colour. They are now dried using sulphur smoke and covered in plastic which protects them from insects and dust and the original colour is retained.
Gardens of apple and cherries are spread over hundreds of acres. After being hygenically dried and packed, apricots and cherries from Gilgit-Baltistan make their way to national and international markets.
Recently at a super store in Berlin, I proudly bought a100g mini-pack of dried apricot under the brand name Hunza-Apricot which costs 2.50 Euros. I cannot express how happy I was to see a product of my village competing in the global market, all the way in Germany.